He sped down the court in transition and dribbled behind his back, leaving a defender in his wake. Keeping his eyes focused ahead, he attacked the basket with vigor, leaping towards the rim until he was fouled hard on a ferocious dunk attempt.

Before stepping to the foul line, Nuwr’iyl Williams clenched his fists, tilted his head backwards and let out a yell. It was a growl of frustration, a wail of dissatisfaction with his inability complete the three-point play — even with the extra contact.

It came and went quickly, lost in the noise of a packed Santa Monica High School gymnasium that was anticipating a thunderous slam.

And it was the briefest of detours from his motto, “Work in silence,” a philosophy Williams seized at a crucial juncture of his athletic career.

As he prepared for this season, his last with the Vikings, and committed to a future with the Auburn men’s basketball team, he purposely didn’t tune out the skeptics. Instead, he welcomed their doubts and internalized their criticisms, using them as motivation as he quietly made his comeback from a devastating injury.

“It put a log on my fire,” he says. “I do talk, but I let actions speak more for me.”

***

Things were going well for New Williams entering his junior year.

Scouts who hadn’t seen him play at Samohi had probably watched him on the AAU circuit with Earl Watson Elite. He already had 11 college offers. Schools like North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas were starting to show interest. For the 6-foot-2 guard with the skills to match his athletic ability, the possibilities seemed endless.

Then the season started.

Williams says the anterior cruciate ligament tear came in the first game of the year, but he didn’t have surgery right away. Instead he sat out a tournament and “felt great,” so he played in five more games. But on Jan. 4, 2014, during a game in the Jordan Take Flight Challenge at Redondo Union High School, Williams’ knee failed him on a pivot move.

“I tried to come back,” he says. “I was trying to come back, but it just gave out. … I don’t get discouraged by anything. When I found out about my ACL, everybody was devastated. But I thought, ‘This is where the real work begins.’ I erased the negativity and said, ‘I’m going to come back 100 times better.'”

***

Surgery was a necessity, a reality he was forced to accept. It was out of his control.

What he could control, though, was his approach to physical therapy.

Williams recalls walking into a rehabilitation facility the day after his procedure and being asked about a desired timetable for recovery. He says his answer — four months — drew a laugh from the staffer.

“He thought I was playing,” Williams says. “But I was serious.”

He was tenacious about his training. He advanced quickly through the facility’s four color-coded progress levels, first yellow, then green, then blue, then black.

Three months after his surgery, he says, he was already shooting around. He actually got a little carried away, earning a scolding after throwing down a reverse alley-oop dunk on a lob from his cousin. Four months removed from the operation, Williams says, he scored a perfect 50 on an agility test.

His strength was back.

And by the time practice began for his senior season with the Vikings, he says, several college coaches lamented overlooking a player who had already made his decision.

“He’s made a remarkable recovery in a short amount of time,” Samohi coach James Hecht says. “He continues to develop strength in his leg and confidence in his leg. His timing is getting better. The work he’s put in since the surgery to get to this point has been incredible.”

***

Like many decision in life, the recruiting process often hinges on the little things.

And as New Williams powered his way back from the ACL injury, he paid close attention to the details. To him, they mattered.

Several schools backed off completely. One college sent him weekly letters from the time he had surgery to the end of his rehab, then later pulled its offer. Another was too aggressive, repeatedly calling him during school hours. Auburn played it cool, keeping in touch without seeming desperate.

The Tigers were certainly appealing as a rejuvenated program, not only in a conference that includes the nation’s current No. 1 team but on a campus that offers business and pre-law courses.

Williams could develop his skills under a vivacious coach in Bruce Pearl, who is hoping to manufacture a renaissance at Auburn after taking Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament six years in a row.

Pearl, a former national coach of the year who entered the 2014-15 season with a 462-145 career record, envisions the Santa Monica product at point guard.

“New Williams is a high major prospect both on and off the court,” Pearl says in a release, calling him one of the most athletic players on the West Coast. “He comes from a great family, has a great work ethic and a great foundation. Had he not undergone ACL surgery last spring that kept him out for the summer, he would have been recruited by all the Pac-12 schools.”

The positive feelings Williams had about Auburn were confirmed during his official visit. He stayed a few nights, hung out with the team, toured the campus and went to a football game. One fan identified the four-star recruit and asked for his autograph.

“As soon as I got on the campus, I already had that vibe — I don’t know what it was,” he says. “I just knew it was going to be the place for me. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I didn’t say anything, but from that moment I knew. … I feel I can come in and make an impact as soon as I get there.”

Adds Hecht: “He’ll do just fine (in college). He’s got the heart of a lion. He’s not going to back down from any challenge. Whatever has to be done, he’ll do. He has the drive, the hunger to succeed.”

***

Some days, Williams feels invincible. Other days, he experiences swelling and stiffness in his knee.

Every day he’s reflective, grateful to be back on the court, even glad — yes, glad — that he went through an ACL injury.

“I felt it was a blessing,” he says. “It made me a more cerebral player. I had to watch the game more than I would’ve, and now I see things on the court that I may not have seen.”

Validation of Williams’ progress came last month, when he was nominated to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Although he didn’t make the final cut for the annual showcase — the final roster included just one California product — he appreciated what the gesture meant.

“That felt great,” he says, “not because it was a big deal to make the game but because people told me that because of my injury it’s not going to happen. I told them, ‘No, it’s going to happen. I’m at least going to be acknowledged.’ That was a big deal for me. When I found out, it made me feel like, ‘See?’ I wanted to show everybody I’m capable, even with the injury.

“Everybody thought this would hinder me, but it made me better.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com and on Twitter.

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